Five Must-See Trees at The Huntington

Posted on Tue., May 9, 2023 by Sandy Masuo
The Coast Live Oak in the Chinese Garden.

The remarkable Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia) in the Chinese Garden is one of the oldest trees at The Huntington. Photo by Linnea Stephan. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

The Huntington’s plant collections include roughly 800 tree species that range from iconic California natives to representatives of habitats from around the world. Some are uncommon in garden settings, while others may be popular in cultivation but are outstanding individual specimens. Each has an intriguing natural and cultural history, and all are part of The Huntington’s living botanical legacy. Here are five must-see trees to appreciate during your next visit to The Huntington.

Expand image A Queensland kauri stands tall among white clouds and a blue sky.

Although they have broad leaves, Queensland kauris (Agathis robusta) are cone-bearing trees, like pines. Photo by Linnea Stephan.

Queensland Kauri (Agathis robusta): On Sept. 24, 2021, the kauri that governs the Rose Garden was measured at 112 feet tall with a 27.5-foot average crown spread and 235-inch trunk circumference—earning it a designation as a California Big Tree, The Huntington’s first such honor. This tree was originally planted in 1890 next to the home of the Shorb family (the former owners of the Huntington property), which was situated where the Huntington Art Gallery now stands. In 1908, when construction of the Huntington mansion (which would later become the Art Gallery) began, the decision was made to move the tree to its present location in the Rose Garden. It was already 40 feet tall, and, according to Henry E. Huntington’s ranch superintendent William Hertrich, “presented a peculiar problem in transplanting: it had very few side roots but a long tap root seven inches in diameter.” Hertrich described the details of dislodging the tree: “We were obliged to cut this tap root five feet below the ground’s surface, and then we seared the cut with a plumber’s blowtorch to stop the bleeding. I was skeptical about the success of moving this tree, but it turned out satisfactorily and is still growing.” Interestingly, this method for stanching the tree’s root relates to the origins of its name, which in Māori means “black tree,” and burnt kauri resin is used as a pigment in traditional tattooing.

Expand image The branches and leaves of a Peppermint Tree form a dome along a walkway.

The weeping habit (general structure) of the Peppermint Tree (Agonis flexuosa) creates an inviting space under its boughs. Photo by Linnea Stephan.

Peppermint Tree (Agonis flexuosa): Native to Western Australia, this tree belongs to the same family as Eucalyptus, and like its more well-known cousins, its foliage is distinctly aromatic. The fragrant, volatile oils produced by the plants help defend the trees from hungry herbivores. The Noongar, an Indigenous people who inhabit the native range of this tree, use its wood for crafting tools and its leaves for medicinal and ceremonial purposes. They have several names for it, including wonnil, wanil, wonnow, and wonong. Its dramatic, weeping structure and moderate size (25 to 35 feet tall) make it an attractive specimen tree in garden landscapes. You can find this magical tree in The Huntington’s Australian Garden.

Expand image A Montezuma Cypress in the Rose Garden.

The Montezuma Cypress (Taxodium mucronatum) is a cousin of the iconic Bald Cypress that is native to the wetlands of the southeastern United States. Photo by Linnea Stephan.

Montezuma Cypress (Taxodium mucronatum): During the 2023 Founders’ Day event, Sean Lahmeyer, The Huntington’s plant collections and conservation manager, shared the story of the Montezuma Cypress. Native to Mexico, Guatemala, and Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, it figured prominently in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican culture as well as in recent Mexican history. Its Nahuatl name is āhuēhuētl, meaning “upright drum in water” or “old man of the water,” because it commonly grows along waterways.

“In the capital city of Tenochtitlan, the Mexica [Nahuatl-speaking Indigenous people of the region] planted more than 500 cypress trees at the request of King Montezuma around 1450 CE as part of a royal garden,” Lahmeyer said. “Today, Chapultepec Park in Mexico City remains the oldest urban park in the Western Hemisphere, with several of the older Montezuma Cypress trees still standing. As the city grew around the park, the shallow lakes and marshes that were the habitat for these trees were filled in, and drought and pollution took their toll. … El Sargento, one of the last great trees, died in 1969, but its 50-foot-tall trunk remains as a cultural and historical landmark. Historical records show that William Hertrich, the first superintendent of the gardens working for Henry E. Huntington, collected seeds from the trees in Chapultepec Park in 1912, possibly from El Sargento. Today, there are 13 mature trees in our living collection. What is truly remarkable is that all of these trees are the direct descendants of the trees that the Mexica planted in Chapultepec.” In the last decade, the Mexican government has made the Montezuma Cypress a conservation priority, and The Huntington’s Botanical staff is working to share this invaluable genetic resource in our collection with colleagues in Mexico. At The Huntington, there are three Montezuma Cypresses in the Rose Garden, and nine are located near the Lily Ponds.

Expand image The leaning trunk and branches of the Coast Live Oak in the Chinese Garden.

The distinctive structure of the huge Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia) in the Chinese Garden provides clues to its life history. | Photo by Linnea Stephan.

Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia): This evergreen oak species occurs naturally along coastal areas, from Mendocino County, California, to Baja California, Mexico. The ancient Coast Live Oak in the Chinese Garden starred in a Huntington video earlier this year, with Tim Thibault, curator of woody plant materials, and Tang Qingnian, the 2019 Cheng Family Foundation Artist-in-Residence who was inspired to make a portrait of it. “There are a lot of old oak trees at The Huntington, but this tree is especially appealing,” Tang said. “It’s comparatively low and open. It almost feels like it is welcoming or conversing with visitors.”

The oak is estimated to be 200 years old, though determining its age is difficult because of the tree’s form—the result of its unusual life story. “We can see the remnants of two former trunks,” Thibault explained. “This tree had one life where it came up and sprouted and lived for about half of its age, and then for some reason, it got mechanically damaged or burned and died. … The main upright limbs are essentially resprouts from whatever that traumatic event was. What I love most about this tree is that it knows that it has structural problems.” Thibault pointed out that the undersides of the large limbs are producing “compression wood,” which is higher in the organic polymer lignin, and that makes this tissue especially strong under pressure. “These are living organisms who’ve been at it a long time,” he added. “They’re good at what they do.”

Expand image The copper beech's red and brown leaves near the North Vista fountain.

The copper beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Atropurpurea’) near the North Vista fountain adds a glowing splash of color. Photo by Sandy Masuo.

Copper Beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Atropurpurea’): It’s difficult to miss the copper beech that stands near the fountain in The Huntington’s North Vista. The font of vibrant copper-red foliage contrasts strikingly with its neighboring oaks, palms, and camellias, particularly in the morning sun. This species is native to Europe and mainly differs from common beeches in its leaf color. These trees’ beechnuts are a significant food source for wildlife, and humans have historically consumed them as well. The North Vista’s copper beech is rooted in rich local history that was spotlighted at the 2023 Founders’ Day event. It was acquired in 1938 from H. N. Rust & Son’s subdivision of the Palm Place Nursery, formerly located in South Pasadena. Born in Massachusetts, Horatio Nelson Rust (1828–1906) was a horticulturist and avid collector of archeological artifacts. He became a friend and supporter of abolitionist John Brown (1800–1859), who led the ill-fated 1859 raid of a federal armory in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. During the Civil War, Rust served as a medical volunteer and afterward helped raise funds for freed Black emigrants to Kansas. In 1881, Rust moved his family to Pasadena, where he became active in community affairs. He helped found Pasadena’s first public library and established the nursery that he and his family ran for 60 years.

Use the map below to find these magnificent trees the next time you are at The Huntington.

Expand image Map of trees at The Huntington

1. Queensland Kauri (Agathis robusta); 2. Peppermint Tree (Agonis flexuosa); 3. Montezuma Cypress (Taxodium mucronatum); 4. Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia); 5. Copper Beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Atropurpurea’)

Sandy Masuo is the senior writer in the Office of Communications and Marketing at The Huntington.